Politifact Gives Up on Actual Fact-Checking

I’ve written before about Politifact’s approach to fact-checking, which seems to swing between actual consideration of the facts and embarrassing attempts to curry favor with conservatives and establish “credibility.” Last night’s “fact-check” of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union falls into the former category. Here’s the line in question from last night’s speech:

“In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than three million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005.”

Considering the depth of the recession, three million jobs isn’t good enough for a robust recovery, but there’s no doubt that this is a true statement. That, however, didn’t stop Politifact from labeling it “half-true.” Say what?

In his remarks, Obama described the damage to the economy, including losing millions of jobs “before our policies were in full effect.” Then he describes the subsequent job increases, essentially taking credit for the job growth. But labor economists tell us that no mayor or governor or president deserves all the claim or all the credit for changes in employment.

Presumably, a fact-checker’s job is to check facts, i.e., independently verifiable statements about the world. That the president isn’t responsible for the full output of an economy is an important nuance that adds valuable context to the president’s remarks. But unless President Obama said that he, personally, created those jobs, it has nothing to do with “fact-checking.”

This gets to the problem of Politifact’s work. When talking about facts—the sky is blue, 2 + 2 = 4, etc.—something is either “true” or “false.” To call something “half-true” is to make a value judgment and decide that there’s more to the story. Which is a valuable service to provide. But if what you’re doing is political analysis—and not fact-checking—then you owe your readers a little honesty about your intentions.

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